Dozens of residents urged Joplin School District officials on Thursday to preserve the school that they consider to be the "cornerstone" of their neighborhood, Columbia Elementary School.
The comments came at the final public forums the district hosted to gauge public input on a recent recommendation that West Central and Columbia, Joplin's two oldest schools, be combined into one building to be constructed at a new location. The proposal is estimated to serve up to 450 students and would cost an estimated $19.6 million.
Daniel Koucky, who lives in the Columbia neighborhood, has a son who will be a kindergartner there next month. He said he was "very disappointed" in the committee's recommendation to combine Columbia and West Central into one building at a new location.
"The committee's recommendation will throw away a tangible cornerstone in our community," he said.
Koucky suggested the district engage the services of a company that specializes in restoration of historic buildings.
"It is very important that we consider all the students that do attend and will be attending these elementary schools, hopefully for years to come," he said. "I ask that you please consider my proposal and take a deep look at what it would take to keep these schools in their neighborhoods."
Ellen Broglio, who lives within walking distance of Columbia, said she believes keeping a neighborhood school is important.
"I understand the difficulties (with Columbia), but I hope we can figure out a way to maintain Columbia as a neighborhood school so the kids can walk to school, so it's a gathering place for the community," she said.
Blake Webster, a neighborhood business owner who also has children at Columbia, said schools thrive on reciprocity with their immediate community, on strong after-school involvement and parent-teacher interactions. He worries those aspects would get lost in a larger school located outside the neighborhood.
"I think we have to place the value on a neighborhood in which a school sits," he said. "Our kids need more than a shiny school. I'd like to see the neighborhood remain intact."
Tracy Horton, president of the Columbia PTO, said she believes the safe room portion might need to be torn down because of safety concerns there, but renovating the old school would be her ideal choice.
"What I would like to see is if it could be possible for renovation to be done to the school," she said. "If that is not financially responsible, then I respect that, but I feel that to keep the neighborhood school feel (has) a high benefit to the neighborhoods where the schools are."
Horton said the community feel of the school is "pretty sacred" to her families and others in the neighborhood.
"The word I use a lot is 'touchable,'" she said. "It's a touchable school where you have lots of interaction and connection. The parents and teachers are very connected."
But Molly Williams doesn't believe that Columbia's "neighborhood school" feeling is confined to its current structure. Her three children attended Columbia, with all of them spending their kindergarten years in a classroom in a trailer, and she hopes the district will do what's best for its students and staff.
"I think the main concern is losing that neighborhood school culture," she said. "The thing I want people to realize is school culture is not based on a building. It's based on the parents, students, teachers and administrators and the involvement of all those people working together. ... There's no better time to make an adjustment to allow everyone to have a fair and adequate education."
About the options
The district's long-term facilities committee, tasked with developing solutions to prioritize student safety and equity in schools around the district, recently told the Joplin Board of Education that several concerns exist at Columbia and West Central schools.
Both are more than 90 years old and have inadequate classroom sizes and space for other services, such as special education and technology, committee members said. The Columbia property also has poor soil conditions and mining features that have contributed to structural problems, such as cracks in the walls and a pulling away of some walls from floors, the committee said.
The committee considered four options that it said would address the "oldest and most problematic" schools:
• Combining the West Central and Columbia at the current West Central location. This would serve 450 students and would cost an estimated $18.5 million.
• Renovating Columbia and building a new addition at its current site. This would serve 300 students and would cost an estimated $15.2 million.
• Razing Columbia and building a new school at its current site. This would serve 300 students and would cost an estimated $15.3 million.
• Combining the two schools at a new site. This would serve 450 students and would cost an estimated $19.6 million.
The committee has recommended the fourth option. It also has recommended a $2.875 million addition of classroom space and offices at Kelsey Norman Elementary School to eliminate the modular units in use there and provide more space for programs and services.
Globe intern Christopher Martucci contributed to this report.